MARCH OF THE MICROBES
I’m the guy who reaches deep into the back of the supermarket refrigerator to get at the quarts of milk that are both coldest and furthest from expiring. Easy calculation, right? Look again: the dateline says “Sell by Jun 30,” but right beneath it—usually blurred because it’s printed on the crease—comes a disclaimer: “In NYC by Jun 27.”
The mind fairly reels. Do the truck drivers stop at the border and walk the cartons in by hand? Does New York City exist in a parallel milk universe where bacteria multiply faster? (Given the generally accelerated pace of life of the city, it would make sense.)
In the summertime, that three-day lapse seems all the more ominous; the life-giving symbolism of milk rendered suddenly sinister by the idea that unpalatable microbes might be lurking within.
The woman at my local deli stared at me blankly when I pointed it out. “No one’s ever asked about that before,” she said. New York—I’m looking out for you!
Apparently, the truth is less exciting than my imagination. City law requires that milk’s expiration date be set no more than 96 hours after 6 a.m. on the day the milk was pasteurized. Different city agencies have given various reasons for the double-dating: trucks take longer to get to New York; milk is more likely to sit unrefrigerated on sidewalks after delivery; and so on.
I guess I can appreciate this, but frankly, speed-spoiling milk is just the tip of the melting iceberg. Where most people see just “food,” I see a teeming mass of organisms yearning to be free. Even in the winter, you’re not supposed to leave comestibles on the counter for more than a couple of hours. I can only picture what’s happening, then, on the inside of that steaming pile of chopped chicken at the kebab cart on the corner when it’s 85 degrees out and as moist as a locker room.
It makes me want to ingest nothing but sunflower seeds and water until Halloween.
FEAR OF FRIEDRICH’S
Air-conditioning has become a requisite part of surviving the summer months in New York. But what scares me is remembering all the crappy installations of apartments past, which have variously involved a cinder block, duct tape, and an OED. Gravity was suspended by simply pulling the top of the window on top of the unit. I’m pretty sure that until a couple of years ago, I never knew screws were supposed to be involved in the process.
ne 30-something acquaintance (who now has a garden apartment in Brooklyn Heights and never has to worry about his air-conditioner crushing anything but his herb garden) pointed out that technically many air-conditioners need a special screw, drill bits, and a particular kind of window frame to get your air-conditioner in safely. Now think of all the morons (like me!) out there, eating ramen for dinner and saving up for health insurance, who would never dream of a special trip to Home Depot when it’s 95 degrees out. Then go to the Upper East or West Side and look up: It’s a terrifying sight … like Hitchcock’s The Birds but starring air conditioners, hundreds of ’em in those big residential building windows … like an army waiting for the signal to charge.
THE GRATE ESCAPE
Besides being danger zones for any woman wearing high-heeled sandals who has to tip-toe across them to avoid getting stuck, or sundresses that might blow up à la Marilyn, subway grates are what separate the city’s street life from its gritty underworld.
Occasionally, I see someone standing on a grate and I have a sudden urge to leap and push them onto the safety of the concrete sidewalk. “Are you crazy, man? Can’t you see you’re standing over a 2-inch piece of metal?”
And it’s gotten worse. I used to force myself to nervously walk across them, convincing myself not to think about what was below: day-old rainwater, rat droppings, McDonald’s wrappers. Now, I’m near panic if my friends jokingly push me onto a grate, and naturally, I hop off immediately. As a fellow resident who happens to share my grate-related fears recently said to me, “What’s worse, social awkwardness or falling into a bottomless pit?”
The city of New York thinks I’m being irrational.
“That is a completely unfounded fear,” said Gricelda Cespedes, assistant chief stations officer of New York City Transit, which operates over 3,300 of the city’s subway grates. “There is an angle in the concrete, and the grating is bigger than the hole, so it cannot possibly go through that hole.”
But what about the severely worn-down grates held together by Depression-era bolts, I asked her.
“They get checked annually and sometimes even more often when we clean them,” said Ms. Cespedes. “They are very difficult to break, and the new ones we’re putting in can take a truckload.”
O.K., fine. But surely there are grates in this city that have been in place for over a century. And even if transit workers check every single grate annually, they are likely to be underpaid and overworked, not unlike the local Duane Reade workers that never seem to get my prescription right. Having them be responsible for the ground I walk on doesn’t much ease my fears.
I asked Dr. Gary Marcus, a professor of psychology at New York University, how he would suggest I treat my grate-ophobia.
“Like any other phobia,” he said. “Get yourself to walk on a grate and you’ll see that the sky doesn’t fall.”
It’s not the sky that I fear will collapse.
Most people are scared of rats. It would be hard to call this a phobia, because phobias are by definition irrational, and rats carry diseases and bite as many as 50,000 people a year, mostly children.
Less rational is a fear of the “flying” rat—i.e., the pigeon, which is actually a descendant of domesticated birds and, while tending to forage in our trash just like the rat, manages mostly to blend into the background (rarely producing the type of shriek heard at a popular Williamsburg dinner spot recently, for example, when a rat strolled along a planter just inches from the head of an al fresco diner).
But there are some who are suffering from the presence of these ubiquitous flying scavengers. “I spot them for a mile off,” said Anne Cotton, 43, a shoe store owner. “I assume they’re going to walk towards me or fly towards me.” Ms. Cotton is a Brit who lives much of the year in the U.K. with her New York book editor husband, but she spends a month or so a year here, and her trouble spots include “the steps up to the Met,” she said. “I zigzag. It probably takes me twice as long to get up the steps as anyone else. I stand for a moment and take in where the pigeons are, plan my route, and then I set off.”
Also problematic is Central Park: “I sit down to read a book and then see a bird hopping near me, so I get up and walk to the next bench,” she said. “It’s irritating for eating outside in the summer.”
She called her condition “a complete freakout phobia.” And she is not alone. “It does suck when people want to go to brunch on a Saturday afternoon and it’s beautiful outside,” said my friend Dionne, 27, a pigeon-phobic corporate lawyer in
Manhattan, the other day. “My first thought is, ‘Where are we going, and I don’t really want to sit outside, and if we sit outside it needs to be in a place where there are no birds around,’ and that’s pretty much nowhere.”
“When I had to move, I was very happy to stay on the same street, because I was accustomed to knowing where they were, where the birds hang out in my area,” she added. “I basically try to avoid or minimize my exposure to birds on a daily basis.”
Neither woman is actually afraid the pigeons will hurt them: “It’s the feathers,” said Ms. Cotton. “I would rather be in a room with a man with a gun than a pigeon.”